One must never let the facts get in the way of a perfectly good conspiracy theory.
Yet I must confess that, on the matter of the Kennedy assassination, I have done exactly that.
My experience with the notion that President John F. Kennedy was not killed by a single person acting on his own began (boringly enough) with Oliver Stone. Viewing his 1991 film JFK for the first time (and then a second and a third), I was mesmerized by the web of intrigue that surrounded the late president’s death.
At the very least, the movie suggested that whether Kennedy really had been killed as part of a grand plot, there is a trove of information to illustrate why the idea exists.
Mind you, in the many years during which I counted myself among JFK conspiracy cooks, I never clung to any particular narrative. Whether the president had been done in by the mob, the CIA, Fidel Castro, extreme right-wingers, extreme left-wingers, or all of the above—that was beside the point.
For me, the case was a simple matter of forensics: Early analysis of Abraham Zapruder’s film of the assassination concluded the shooting took place in a span of 5.6 seconds, which is simply not enough time for a single person to fire three separate shots with the rifle Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly used. By definition, that means there were at least two shooters and that the killing was therefore a conspiracy of one kind or another.
Then some time later, I came upon a documentary, “Beyond Conspiracy,” aired on ABC in 2003, which noted that subsequent and more sophisticated examinations of the Zapruder film have established that—oops!—the actual time frame of the three shots is 8.4 seconds—more than enough for someone with Oswald’s background and training.
Since I had based my conspiratorial musings entirely on this one statistic, and since the statistic had now been proved incorrect, I saw no compelling reason to carry on with my investigations and I have suited up with Team Lone Gunman ever since.
On this 50th anniversary of that dark day in Dallas, I wish to contest a commonly-held perception about conspiracy buffs—namely, that they are stubbornly irrational creatures who are impervious to facts and data that might disprove their darkest convictions about how the world really works.
Historically speaking, this assumption is entirely correct, except when it’s not.
For instance: When a wave of paranoia about President Barack Obama’s place of birth crested a few years back, the basis of the claim that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, was the lack of a birth certificate to prove otherwise.
When the president produced such a document, the controversy should have ended right there. Yet the howls of protest continued from some corners of the Internet, with “birther” holdouts proceeding to concoct ever more elaborate explanations for how the objective truth was neither objective nor truthful.
However, this was not universally the case. For every person who did not listen to reason, there were many more who did.
In a Gallop poll conducted in the first week of May 2011—several days after Obama’s “long form” birth certificate was made public—13 percent of respondents asserted the president was “definitely” or “probably” born in a foreign country. In an identical survey two weeks prior—that is, when the birth certificate had yet to be seen—the number was 24 percent.
In other words, the size of the “birther” pool was cut nearly in half by a simple disclosure of fact. For a sizable minority of the public, the conviction that the president was not born in the United States was, it turned out, susceptible to basic logic: They asked for proof, they received proof, they accepted it and they moved on. Presto.
I wish the size of this minority were bigger, and that there weren’t such a large gang of reliable idiots whose paranoia overwhelms all their other mental capacities. The latter makes the former look bad, and that’s a shame. We need honest skeptics in this society, because sometimes their instincts are right.
The JFK conspiracy theories might be hooey, but some conspiracies are real. (The Lincoln assassination is one.) We must take care to recognize this, and to differentiate between the two.
To assume nothing is a conspiracy is no less reckless than to assume everything is a conspiracy. One generalizes at one’s peril.
The key, as with so much else, is to be all the time led by the facts and the evidence, and not by the lack thereof.